Wild, loud, ridiculous, over-the-top in every conceivable way, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) is a feast for the senses, a one-of-a-kind thrill ride, a candy-colored cacophony of comic book logic and madcap mayhem taken to the absolute extreme, and beyond. With its vividly imagined universe full of outrageous characters, ancient prophecies, magical relics, and its unapologetically simplistic take on Good versus Evil, it is some sort of acid-drenched mashup of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though upon release it divided audiences and critics alike, it remained for years the world’s highest grossing French film, vindicating Besson and his pet project, which he conceived in his youth and finally managed to bring to the silver screen after years of struggle and at a cost which at the time made it the most expensive European film ever made.
Author: Eric Shoag
Coming at a unique moment in cinema history, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1962) is like nothing else on film: a mesmerizing mixture of suburban sheen, suspense and terror that all but abandons any notion of plot completely, made by an artist who had at that point risen to the very top of his profession and yet had to overcome multiple disappointments and obstacles to complete the project.
Having begun his lengthy, legendary career in England during the Silent Era almost four decades earlier, Hitchcock was riding high by the 1960s, enjoying a string of successes and, more importantly, unprecedented control over his work. In addition to supervising and contributing to his television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the filmmaker closed out the 1950s with the masterful, moody Vertigo (1958) and the comic thriller North By Northwest (1959), following them with a small-budget movie that went on to become one of the most famous, analyzed and imitated in history: Psycho (1960). Playfully and radically thwarting expectations and bringing a new level of intensity and violence to the silver screen, Psycho anticipated (some would say invented) an entire genre: the slasher film. Never one to rest on his laurels, Hitchcock’s next movie would again push the storytelling envelope and presage yet another genre that would soon come to dominate the cinematic world: the disaster film.
One of the more enchanting and effervescent romantic comedies to come out of any era, Roman Holiday (1954) is certainly an anomaly among films from the frantic 1950s, a decade remembered for its deadly serious dramas, oppressive crime stories, ponderous literary adaptations, epics and musical productions. No, Roman Holiday is something completely different, unique unto itself; one of those magical motion pictures in which every element combines to form an exquisite, uplifting entertainment that transcends time and still feels as fresh, surprising and spontaneous today as on the day it was released.
It is hard to believe that when Leonard, Arthur, Julius, and Herbert Marx (better known by their stage names (Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo) assembled in early 1929 to make their first motion picture, most were already in their middle age: Chico, the firstborn, was 42, Harpo 40, Groucho 38, while Zeppo, the baby of the family born a full decade later, a mere 28. Something about their irrepressible energy, their irreverence, and their sheer outrageousness made them seem much younger, but those qualities had been honed to perfection over the previous two decades on the long hard road to stardom, as the family slowly but surely worked their way to the top of the vaudeville circuit and then Broadway. Over the twenty years that followed the brothers made a dozen more films (some against their better judgment), and while it is difficult to pick one as their absolute best, an argument could be made that they never surpassed their first five; the ones for Paramount Pictures before the infamous Hays Code imposed its “moral” guidelines on movie content, the ones that include Zeppo, and the ones the Brattle Theatre has chosen to screen this time around in their New Year’s Day marathon.
HAIL, CAESAR! (2016), the latest film by writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen, is a remarkably unique piece of work, even for the brothers who have been making their own brand of remarkably unique pieces of work for over thirty years. It has been a fascinating and rewarding career to follow. Their first efforts in the 1980s gained a strong underground following; a devoted audience of hyper-literate cineasts and moviegoers with an appreciation for the intelligent and the offbeat. Impossible to pin down or predict, the pair concocted cinematic landscapes as varied as one can imagine right out of the gate, from their suspenseful Neo-Noir debut BLOOD SIMPLE (1984) to its follow-up RAISING ARIZONA (1987), something like a trailer-park screwball comedy on acid. And things didn’t get any less bizarre from there. After the meticulous mobster masterpiece MILLER’S CROSSING (1990), the following year saw the release of BARTON FINK, an especially audacious and utterly unclassifiable hypnotic puzzle of obsession, madness, and the “life of the mind” dressed up as a story about a blocked writer trying to stay true to his principles. Incredibly, this perplexing picture swept the top three awards at the 1991 Cannes film festival (Best Director, Best Actor, and the Palme d’Or). The Coens were now officially a phenomenon, with legendary director Robert Altman taking notice and parodying them in his vicious skewering of the new Hollywood, THE PLAYER (1992). A mainstream breakthrough seemed inevitable.
Film is a visual medium, but if there was anyone who could make an audience feel the scales tip more toward the written word, it is writer/director Billy Wilder. And of all the amazing motion pictures Wilder created or contributed to in his career from the 1930s to the 1980s, there is perhaps no greater example of his linguistic brilliance than the delirious screwball comedy BALL OF FIRE (1941), a supreme example of the pre-war Hollywood studio system firing on all cylinders and a fabulously satisfying entertainment in which much of the humor is based on the different ways a single language can be used by different people to the point of hindering, rather than facilitating, communication.
Vera Chytilová’s incredible burst of cinematic rebellion, DAISIES (1966), deserves far more attention. As shocking and subversive as any film ever made, it arose from the creative and cultural explosion known as the Czech New Wave (Nova Vina) movement, a reaction to the oppressive Communist regime then in place. The movement flourished for a few short years before the Soviet invasion of 1968 brought new and devastating meaning to the word “oppressive.” Tied to this historical moment, linked after the fact to some nebulous concept of “feminism,” soaring gloriously above even the most freewheeling fantasies of French New Wave pathfinders Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, DAISIES can also be seen as a decadent doppelganger to that other groundbreaking work of 1960s female-centric cinema, Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA (also 1966), but more accurately, it is kin to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s monumental short surrealist shocker, UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928), thwarting expectations at every turn and standing triumphantly as a one-of-a-kind work of art.
It is comforting to know that the motion picture industry has not changed very much since its inception just over a century ago. The primary purpose of the product is still to entertain; to draw multitudes into the theater, there to take part in a collective escapist experience that distracts from the mundane cares of day-to-day existence. To that end there have always been, and always will be, movies made for the pure thrill of an adventure, free from the didacticism of any higher moral purpose. Director John Farrow’s adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s suspense novel THE BIG CLOCK (1948), is just such a film, and triumphantly so.
One of the great things about the motion picture is the way certain kinds of stories lend themselves to its unique storytelling vocabulary, the utilization of sound, image, and the manipulation and juxtaposition of multiple images in time (editing), to create a multilayered narrative and to effect an emotional response in the audience. The Romance, The Western, Science Fiction: these categories all have their roots in the realm of literature (books) and movies made based on these various story forms naturally incorporate additional elements that (ideally) add depth and dimension to them. In very special cases, however, an alchemical reaction occurs, creating a new form entirely unique to the film language. In the 1930s the Romantic Comedy, supercharged by the intangible chemistry between certain actors and the rapid fire dialogue written for them, spawned a genre called “Screwball.” And in the 1940s, a number of European emigre directors began to adapt dark, fatalistic Crime Dramas for the screen, often incorporating in them the visually dynamic elements of German Expressionism, thus giving rise to what the French referred to as “Film Noir” (literally “Black Film.”)
The silver screen at the close of 1990 was dominated by gangster movies. As Martin Scorcese’s GOODFELLAS opened to critical and popular acclaim, anticipation was building for the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER PART III in December. It was at this precise moment a pair of upstart filmmakers unleashed on an unsuspecting world the most satisfying, cerebral and cinematic piece of work in that genre to appear in years. Joel and Ethan Coen’s amazing MILLER’S CROSSING, incredibly only their third feature film, is a beautiful and meticulous piece of craftsmanship that hearkens back to the glory days of Hollywood and shows the audacious duo’s confidence and skill growing by leaps and bounds.